Tom Garson, left, and Jon Erickson, co-owners of the Freighthouse, are photographed on the restaurant’s patio, where music is performed twice a week spring through fall. The two purchased the La Crosse institution from the original owners in 2009.
In another week, one of La Crosse’s best-known restaurants will celebrate 40 years in business.
The Freighthouse Restaurant at 107 Vine St. will begin a week of anniversary specials next Sunday, which is exactly 40 years from the day it opened.
The downtown restaurant was opened Oct. 28, 1978, by John Rieder, Barney Sweeney, John Senner and John Peterson after they extensively renovated the former Milwaukee Road railroad freighthouse. The building had most recently been used by W.A. Roosevelt Co. for pipe storage.
In 2009, the four original owners sold the business to three longtime employees — Tom Garson, Jon Erickson and Tom Olsen. Olsen died in 2017, and Garson and Erickson continue to own the business.
Garson has worked at the Freighthouse Restaurant since a few days after it opened, starting as a dishwasher. He later cooked there and has been the restaurant’s kitchen manager since 1984.
The bar at the Freighthouse restaurant.
“I still do all of the ordering and the majority of the meat cutting,” Garson said.
“I started here in 1984 as a dishwasher; I was 15,” said Erickson, who has worked at the Freighthouse Restaurant ever since. He was an assistant manager when he, Garson and Olsen bought the business in 2009.
“The first few years were challenging” after they took over as owners, Erickson recalled. “It was a rough time in the economy and people were a lot more conscious about what they were spending money on.
“But in the last few years, things have been going up, with a better economy,” Erickson said. “And the new hotels and other new developments downtown have been fantastic” for business.
The restaurant draws customers from as far as Minneapolis and Milwaukee. Erickson and Garson attribute its success to the quality of the food, consistency, ambiance and having a great staff.
“The food is consistent every single day thanks to Tom,” Erickson said.
Garson said he buys the highest-quality food he can get.
The main dining room at the Freighthouse restaurant.
The Freighthouse is best known for its prime rib, steaks and seafood. Its two best-sellers are prime rib and crab legs, followed by filet mignon and halibut.
Seafood has increased in the past four decades as a percentage of the restaurant’s sales, reflecting a change in U.S. food consumption, Garson said.
“They know what they’re doing and do a great job,” Erickson said of the restaurant’s more than 60 employees. “And they care about what they’re doing. We don’t have a lot of turnover” among staff members.
“A lot of people come here for special occasions like weddings and birthdays,” Garson said. “We’re very fortunate to have such a great, loyal customer base.”
Three years ago, the Freighthouse Restaurant added a bar on a covered outdoor patio area known simply as the back dock, because it originally was a loading dock for the railroad freighthouse. The back dock bar is open Tuesday and Thursday nights from spring through fall, with live music some nights.
There’s also live music on Friday and Saturday nights throughout the year in the restaurant’s indoor cocktail lounge.
The back dock and the indoor cocktail lounge are also known for their $3 burger nights, which are on Tuesday and Thursday nights from spring through fall.
The restaurant also has three banquet halls/meeting rooms that are available for private events.
Old menus, including an original from 1978, are displayed in the main dining room at the Freighthouse. The restaurant’s 40th anniversary weeklong celebration will begin Sunday, Oct. 28.
The building has plenty of history.
A fire on Sept. 26, 1992, gutted the structure, which had been built in 1880. The fire’s cause was never determined.
The brick-and-wood building was restored and the restaurant reopened Feb. 1, 1993. Some charred wood around the mirror in the bar, and a melted telephone on display on a wall, are the most obvious reminders of the fire.
The Freighthouse has served a number of celebrities over the years, and the New Orleans Saints often held parties at the restaurant when the NFL team had its summer training camps in La Crosse from 1988 to 1999.
Some celebrities diners include former Saints coach Mike Ditka, former Minnesota Vikings coach Bud Grant, comedian Red Skelton, actor Jim Nabors, baseball players Bo Jackson and Paul Molitor, and entertainers Weird Al Yankovic and Carrot Top.
WHAT: The Freighthouse Restaurant will celebrate its 40th anniversary with a week of promotions that begin next Sunday, Oct. 28.
WHERE: The restaurant is at 107 Vine St. in downtown La Crosse.
WHO: The business is owned by Jon Erickson and Tom Garson.
HOURS: The restaurant’s cocktail lounge is open from 4 p.m. to close daily. Dining begins at 5 p.m. MORE INFO: Call the restaurant at 608-784-6211 or visit www.freighthouserestaurant.com or Facebook.
The Sandy's Drive-In, at the southeast corner of Rose and Clinton streets, is shown here shortly after an addition was completed in 1972. The fast food franchise was at the location from 1962 until about 1975. Today, the site is home to River Bank.
Owner Dave Skogen stands in front of Paul's Pantry, a delicatessen, bakery and convenience store that opened in 1983 at 237 Second Ave N. in Onalaska. The store was named for Paul Skogen, who founded the Skogen supermarket chain at the site in 1946. From 1998 to 2016, the building was used as a support center for the Skogen family's Festival Foods grocery stores.
1985: Ranch House Dinner Theater
Scott Manthe, left, and Renee Lieder starred in the 1985 Ranch House Dinner Theatre production of "Butterflies are Free." The Sparta performing arts venue was opened by Robert Irwin in 1984.
Happy Joe's Pizza and Ice Cream Parlor
Dave Olsen, left, owner of Happy Joe's Pizza and Ice Cream Parlor, helps employees build a 150-foot-long pizza in the parking lot of his Onalaska store in 1984. The event was a fundraiser for the Onalaska High School's athletic department. The store, part of an Iowa-based chain, opened a year earlier at 808 Oak Ave. Olson renamed the restaurant as Pizza Pros Ala Mode in 2012, but it only lasted a few months under the new name. The building was torn down to make way for a Culver's, which opened there in 2014.
Karla Parker serves diners Helen Corbett and David Lehrke at Unicorn Restaurant, which owner Eric Bernhardt opened in 1984 at 312 S. Third St. The location, which had operated as Louie Bantle's Restaurant for many years, is home today to the La Crosse Professional Plaza.
Gary Roberts opened Pagliacci's restaurant in 1982 at 308 S. Third St. The Italian restaurant closed in 1984. Today the building houses the offices of The Fortney Companies.
Bob and Irene Allen, shown here just before their retirement in 1984, opened the Maid-Rite Cafe in 1947 at 1117 Caledonia St. The restaurant, which was best known for its loose-meat sandwiches, closed in 2016.
Circus Supper Club
Sherry and Jim Welch, owners of the Circus Supper Club, are served some of the restaurant's popular ribs by Rita Bagniefski. Pianist and entertainer Victor Borge famously stopped in the downtown landmark during a visit to La Crosse in 1974 and was one of the eateries most famous fans. Years later, Wettstein's expanded its showroom into the space.
Jim Pappas, one of the owners of Michael's Cerise, is shown here in this 1984 photo. The Cerise Club first opened in 1959 at the corner of 32nd and Fairchild streets by Gerald Heberlein; it was destroyed by a fire in 1964. Heberlein reopened the club in 1967 at 1815 Ward Ave. Heberlein sold the restaurant to the Pappas family of Rochester, Minn., in 1976. The Pappas family closed the restaurant in 1993 and briefly reopened before closing for good the following year. Today, the site is home to the Hmoob Cultural and Community Agency.
In July 1976, the Cerise Club was the scene of the shooting deaths of Paul Whipple, a night bartender at the club, and his friend Theresa Schneider. The suspect in the case, David A. Leyden shot and killed himself the next month in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Musician Tammy Waller was a frequent children's performer during the early 1980s at Ground Round. The North Side restaurant opened in early 1981 at 1930 Rose St. It closed in 1992 and was replaced by the Armadillo Mexi-Deli and, later, Edwardo's Ristorante di Pizza, which closed in 2015. A new Ground Round franchise opened in Onalaska in 2015.
David Lee stands in front of a Wendy's restaurant at 2240 Rose St. shortly after purchasing the La Crosse fast food franchise in 1983. He also owned a Wendy's at 3810 Mormon Coulee Road. The North Side location closed in 1989; today the building is home to Express Employment Professionals. The South Side location closed in 1989; today that building is home to Subway Restaurant. A Wendy's opened in 2003 at 4422 Mormon Coulee Road, and another, which opened in 1984, operates across from Valley View Mall in Onalaska.
Elite Restaurant and Candy Shop
Paul Pappas, owner of the Elite Restaurant and Candy Shop, is shown here making confections at his store at 421 Main St. The Pappas family opened the store in 1912; it closed in 2000. Today, Fat Sam's Main Street Bistro, which opened in 2012, occupies that space until it closed in 2017.
Big River Cattle Co.
Jon Schuster, shown here in 1983, opened the Great River Cattle Co. in 1980 at 716 Second Ave. N. in Onalaska. He sold the restaurant in 1989 and bought it back the next year, changing the name to Chicken Steak and Chocolate Cake. The restaurant changed hands again in 2006 and became the Blue Moon, which was the name of the restaurant before Schuster's 1980 purchase.
Danette Shick, daughter of Linda and David Shick, tries on a sombrero during a visit to Esteban's restaurant with her West Salem Spanish class. The restaurant opened in in February 1980 at 300 S. Third St. in downtown La Crosse and closed in January 1996. Numerous eateries have opened and closed at that location since then, and another, Lovechild, is expected to open there later this year.
Fat Sams Bistro
Fat Sams Main Street Bistro operated at 412 Main St. in downtown La Crosse from 2012 to 2017. The restaurant, known for its gourmet sandwiches, salads and homemade soups, was located at the site of the former Elite Restaurant.
The dining room of Nob Hill is shown when it opened in Onalaska in 1979. The restaurant, at 910 Second Ave. N., changed its name in 1993 to the Lighthouse (at Nob Hill) when a lighthouse replica was built next to the restaurant; it closed in 1997. The location has since been occupied by Seven Bridges Restaurant, Seasons By the Lake and currently Two Beagles Brewpub.
1983: Showbiz Pizza Place
Kindergartners from Onalaska’s Irving Pertzsch Elementary School gather at Showbiz Pizza Place in Onalaska in 1983. The pizza chain opened just north of Valley View Mall in 1982 and was rebranded as Chuck E. Cheese in 1993. Although its neighboring movie theater was torn down to make room for Dick’s Sporting Goods in 2014, the kid-friendly restaurant remains.
Owner Philip Jensen, the son of the restaurant's founder, Tollef Jensen, serves customers in this 1982 photo at Jensen's Cafe in Galesville. The cafe was located on the city's square from 1902 until it closed in 1992.
From left, Dane Gonzales, Corrie Brekke and Cody Cottrell opened The Mint restaurant at 1810 State St. in September 2014. The farm-to-table style eatery closed four years later in September 2018.
Franz Butkovich carries a tray of pickled turkey gizzards while working at Oscar's, a restaurant that first opened in 1981 at 139 Second Ave. S. in Onalaska. Owned by Bud Pretasky, the restaurant was designed to let customers grill their own steaks and seafood. In 1984, the eatery changed its name to Oscar's Little Chicago, which had a mafia theme. A fire destroyed the building in 1986, and today the site is a parking lot for the Scoreboard Bar.
A couple enters Walt's Restaurant, 310 Mississippi St., shortly before it closed in 1982. The eatery reopened under the Walt's name again a few years later before closing for good in 1989. Later it served as the hospitality center for G. Heileman Brewery. In 2002, the nearby City Brewery reopened it as City Bier Stube. Later it operated under the names Gottlieb's, Lindner's at the Brewery and Nell's City Grill. The space remains vacant today.
Merlin Wangen, owner of the Big Dipper in Sparta, prepares to serve an ice cream creation in this 1981 photo. The store, which was located at 106 N. Water St., is now home to MC's Sparta Grill.
Millie and Don Roesler stand in front of the Party House restaurant in 1981 shortly before it closed. The supper club, which was located in the town of Shelby near the junction of Hwy. 14/61 and Hwy. 35, was the casualty of a road expansion project.
Lebanese native Assaad Maatouk, pictured in 1981, was the chef and part owner of Bon Appetit restaurant in 1980. The eatery, located at 515 Main St., was open for about a year. The location is now home to the La Crosse Olive Oil Co. Maatouk later ran the Casablanca restaurant, first in Onalaska during the 1990s and later in La Crosse.
Henry and Leone Wright stand in front of their restaurant, The Chop House, days before it closed in April 1980. The eatery, located at 122 N. Third St., was best known for its breakfasts. That original plan was to tear down the building to make way for an expansion of First Bank-La Crosse, but the lender instead built a 10-story office tower at Second and Main streets. The former Chop House building is home to Digger's Sting today.
A fire destroyed Zorba's Greek restaurant in 1979. In 1981, owner Demetrios "Jimmy" Mitropoulos was sentenced to eight years in prison on an arson charge. Emman "Mike" Minos testified that Mitropoulos paid him $2,000 to set fire to the restaurant at 304 Main St. The lot, that today is adjacent to Grounded Specialty Coffee, remains vacant.
Johnnies Bar & Grill
La Crosse firefighters battle a blaze that destroyed Johnnie’s Bar & Restaurant 20 years ago during the early morning hours of Feb. 26, 1994. Johnnie’s, which dated to 1947 and was located at 2620 South Ave., was a popular restaurant, widely known for its Friday night fish fry. The former site of Johnnie’s is now occupied by a parking area for Autotude at 2612 South Ave.
Embers Restaurant, a Minnesota-based chain, opened at 2620 Rose St. in December, 1973. The eatery closed in April 2004 to make room for a Walgreens, which opened at the site in November 2004.
Cheddar 'n Ale
T. Daniel Solie, owner of the Cheddar 'n Ale, samples some of his new restaurant's fare with store manager Joan Jahimiak and co-owner Beverlee Solie. The eatery was located in the same building as the Solies' other business, the Swiss Chateau, at 728 S. Third St. Today, that site is a sales lot for Toyota of La Crosse.
Mai-Tai Supper Club
The Mai-Tai Supper Club is shown here in 1978, the same year the restaurant at 1539 Rose St. was sold by Rachel Skoug to Glenn Addis. In January 1983, Addis sold the property to Arthur Lucas, who renamed the restaurant Arthur's Restaurant; the restaurant closed five months later. Later that year, Lucas was convicted of first degree-murder. According to news reports, Lucas shot Theodore and Carlene Ann Buschkopf in a Winona, Minn., hotel room; Theodore Buschkopf died from his injuries. Investigators later discovered that Arthur Lucas and Carlene Ann Buschkopf had planned the hit in order to collect life insurance money to fund the restaurant's reopening. The building was razed, and today the land is a parking just south of the Subway restaurant on the city's North Side. Carrie died in custody in 2010. Arthur was released in 2013 after serving nearly 30 years in prison.
Winchell's Donut House
Eugene McLellan was the manager of Winchell's Donut House, which opened in 1978 at the corner of West Avenue and Jackson Street.
Masons work on the exterior of a Taco Bell restaurant under construction in 1977 at 1200 La Crosse St. In 1998, Taco Bell moved to 315 West Ave. N., and Pappa John's pizzeria moved into the building at the corner of La Crosse Street and West Avenue. It closed in 2008, and today a Subway restaurant occupies the corner lot.
1976: New Villa
Betty Volkman, a server at the New Villa, looks over a replica of the U.S. flag in this 1976 photo. The restaurant closed in May 1999, and the building was razed in 2003 to provide parking for the nearby Marcus Cinema Theater. According to the La Crosse Public Library Archives, the restaurant dated to 1937 when George Dialler purchased Rich Newburgs Nite Club and renamed it the New Villa. Dialler selected a rooster as the restaurants logo to pay tribute to the location once having been a poultry farm. In conjunction with the rooster, the New Villa's slogan was "food and cocktails to crow about." It was widely known for its chicken dumpling soup, Hershey almond pie and Friday fish fry dinners.
Mr. D's Donuts
Darrell and Rosie Kluever, owners of Mr. D's Donuts, show off their new location shortly after the restaurant moved to 1146 State St. in 1976. The Kluevers' first Mr. D's restaurant, opened in 1969, was located next door. Art Lotz took over as owner in 1979, and the restaurant closed in 2006 to make room for a widening of West Avenue.
1975: Bodega Lunch Club
The Bodega Lunch Club, pictured in 1975, was a downtown La Crosse landmark for generations. The restaurant opened in 1897 at 122 S. Fourth St. and closed for good in 1989 after a brief closure in 1984. Jeff Hotson and Michael Breckel purchased the building in 1994 and created the Bodega Brew Pub, which still anchors the corner of Fourth and Pearl streets.
When the Linker Building was razed in 1962 as a result of a fire, a large hole remained on the site at the southwest corner of Fourth and Main streets. It was an eyesore, and began to be referred to by residents as the hole, according to research by the archives department of the La Crosse Public Library. The land stood vacant until 1966, when efforts by local businesses, organizations and individuals built a sunken garden. An agreement was made with Ben Marcus, the landowner, whereby the chamber would coordinate development of the park, but Marcus would retain full rights and if he decided to build or sell the property, the city would remove the park. Part of the agreement was that filling the hole was not permitted, so the sunken garden was planned. Debris was cleared by Boy Scouts and other volunteers, and a fountain was installed. A name-the-hole contest was held, and the winner was Phil Dyer with his entry Man-Lay Garden. The name was symbolic of the cooperation of management and labor in this project. A commemorative plaque, which included before and after pictures of the site, was placed in the garden in July 1967 in honor of the firms and individuals that donated materials and labor. In 1974, Marcus sold the land for $75,000, and one year later it was announced that a McDonalds restaurant would be built. It was built so the garden could be partially retained. A 32-foot bridge was built from the sidewalk on Fourth Street over the garden to the walkway. The fast-food restaurant closed its location in 1995. In 1998, the property was remodeled for a Brueggers Bagels, and the Man-Lay garden east of the building was filled in to create six parking spaces by fall 1999. The bagel shop closed in 2004. Today the site is home to Howe's Jewelers.
This Taco John's restaurant opened in 1975 at 229 Rose St. In 1998, the restaurant moved to a larger location at 602 Monitor St., which was previously home to Taco Time. The location at 229 Rose St. is home today to a used car lot.
Taco Village server Carol Gilmore takes orders from Lisa Hanson, Douglas Hanson and Joan Kapeccas shortly after the Mexican restaurant, located at the corner of 19th and State Streets, opened. Today, that location is home to The Mint restaurant.
Ponderosa Steak House
Construction continues on the new Ponderosa Steak House in this 1973 photo. The building, at 2526 Rose St., became North Country Steak Buffet in 1999.
Shakey's Pizza Parlor and Ye Public House is shown here in 1973 shortly before it opened at 1227 S. Third St. Later, a Happy Joe's Pizza and Ice Cream restaurant opened at that site, which today is occupied by Dave's Guitar Shop.
This photo shows the Fireside Restaurant after its dining room was remodeled in 1973. The supper club, located at 9402 Hwy. 16, was opened in 1946 by Ivan Peterson. After the La Crosse restaurant closed in May 1988, the building was demolished to make way for a Barnes & Noble Bookstore. Today, the site is home to a Walgreens.
1972: Hoffman House Restaurant
Charles Hoffman, president of Hoffman House Restaurants, and Mary Lou Mason are served coffee in the new Hoffman House Restaurant, which opened inside the Midway Motor Lodge, 1835 Rose St., in 1972. In 1983, Ken and Jay Proksch began leasing the restaurant and renamed it Moxie's. It changed names again, in 1999, to River Jack's. Today the restaurant is called Black River Bar & Grill.
1972: Louie Bantle's Restaurant
Louis and Lialys Bantle raise their glasses in a toast to the new owner of Louie Bantle's Restaurant, Max Kottmer, right. Louis started his restaurant career in 1944 when he became part owner of Fifth Avenue Buffet. Then, in 1947, he purchased La Conga at 312 S. Third St. and renamed it Louie Bantle's Restaurant. Today, the La Crosse Professional Plaza is located at that site.
Royale Pie Shop
Myron "Mike" Peterson, owner of the Royale Pie Shop, is shown in 1971 shortly before his business at 915 Fifth Ave. S. closed. Peterson estimated he made 2 million pies during the 35 years he was in business. The site today is a duplex.
Chicago Beef & Etc.
Chicago’s Beef & Etc. closed in August of 2017 when owner Ed Pisarik retired. The restaurant had been located at 1203 La Crosse St. for 21½ years.
1971: Kewpee Lunch
Owner Arthur Grathen is shown here in 1971 shortly before his restaurant, Kewpee Lunch, closed. It was best known for its hamburgers. Grathen opened the restaurant at 314 S. Fourth St. in 1938 with his brother-in-law Harry Vokel, when burgers sold for 5 cents. The price gradually increased over the years before peaking at 20 cents. Today, the storefront is occupied by Designing Jewelers.
Bridgeman's Ice Cream
Bridgeman's Ice Cream opened in August 1971 at 3716 Mormon Coulee Road. It was renamed Wayne's Family Restaurant in 1992 before closing. Today, the location is home to Image World and Monogram Express.
1965: Dog House Restaurant
The Dog House Restaurant opened in September 1965. On hand for the opening were, from left, local franchise owner William Jefferson company President Ross Marino. The eatery, located at the corner of Losey Boulevard and State Road, was open 24 hours a day. Hobbit Travel now occupies the corner.
The Swiss Chateau, a cheese, wine and specialty food shop, opened at corner of Third and Ferry streets in 1964. It later added a restaurant called Cheddar and Ale. Today, that site is a sales lot for Toyota of La Crosse.
Henry's Drive-In — which featured a menu of hamburgers, french fries and milkshakes — opened in 1962 at the corner of Seventh and King streets. The building was torn down in 1981 to make way for Godfather's Pizza. That site is home to Pizza Doctors today.
1954: Triangle Cafe
The Triangle Cafe, which opened in 1951, was a popular breakfast spot in downtown La Crosse. Shown in this 1954 photo are, from left, owner H.F. (Herb) Troyer, Betty Troyer, Mary Kreutzer and Thomas Baldwin. The restaurant's building at 601 Main St. was demolished to make room for Gateway Terrace Condominiums.
1952: Harmony Cafe
Louis Athnos, second from right, stands behind the counter inside the Harmony Cafe, 128 N. Third St. The cafe closed in the 1950s, and today the location is home to The State Room.
South Avenue Cafeteria
Dorothy Sheehan serves a customer during the last week of business at South Avenue Cafeteria in 1983. The building was demolished shortly after the restaurant closed. Gundersen Health System's Founders Building occupies the spot today.
The Penguin Drive-In
A circa 1966 view of the Penguin Drive-In, 3317 Mormon Coulee Road, at that time next to a Texaco gas station. The Penguin, which was first operated by Orville Maxwell, was a popular spot for ice cream treats and was in business from 1966 to 1973, according to city directory files. The old Penguin building is long gone and its former site is now occupied by Engelson & Associates, LTD., an accounting and tax consultant firm.